In "The Devil and Tom Walker," the money turns to chips, horses to skeletons, and the house burns. What is Washington Irving trying to say by using these descriptions?
In his short story "The Devil and Tom Walker," Washington Irving issued a clarion warning against avarice. Tom agrees to an arrangement with Old Scratch, otherwise known as the devil. Tom will reap great financial rewards in this life in exchange for his soul in the afterlife. Tom does, indeed, find great wealth, all the while cheating and manipulating the less-fortunate in his pursuit of ever-greater monetary reward. For a time, Tom is permitted to live a life of luxury, while all around him the destitute represent little more than opportunities to further satiate his insatiable greed. Objecting, however, to the suggestion that he is profiting excessively at the expense of his clientele ("The devil take me," said he, "if I have made a farthing!"), Tom instantly pays for his insensitivity, greed and self-righteous indignation. Into the room walks Old Scratch, arrived to collect his end of that ill-considered bargain. Tom disappears forever, leaving behind only the remnants of his previous life. Irving describes the scene as follows:
"Trustees were appointed to take charge of Tom's effects. There was nothing, however, to administer upon. On searching his coffers all his bonds and mortgages were found reduced to cinders. In place of gold and silver his iron chest was filled with chips and shavings; two skeletons lay in his stable instead of his half starved horses, and the very next day his great house took fire and was burnt to the ground. Such was the end of Tom Walker and his ill gotten wealth."
The disintegration and destruction of Tom's material wealth symbolizes the fleeting nature of life, and the fragility of one's standing. The old proverb "you can't take it with you" captures well the situation in which Tom finds himself. He has accumulated great material wealth, but at the expense of his soul--the one part of him that is immortal.
Irving is trying to show the temporal nature of all things through this symbolism. Money turning to worthless chips, horses reduced to skeletons, and the destruction of a house by fire all point to one thing: Everything passes away, and all things are temporary in this life.
This symbolism is similar to other authors, who turn humans to dust, wilt flowers or plants, or use a number of other symbolic devices to demonstrate the passing nature of life. In any literary work, when an author reduces something to its simplest form or its base, that author is normally trying to display the simplicity and fleeting nature of that thing, whatever it may be.